Can I be calm, can I be cool,
Can I be king and not the fool?
(From the poem TEMPER by Don Bragg, 1960 Olympic pole-vault champion)
At a cocktail party in Atlantic City's Boardwalk Regency Hotel casino, a proper young woman carrying a silver tray laden with elegant hors d'oeuvres, approaches Bragg. Bragg passes his cigar over the dainty creations, tapping off the ash as he does so, exhales a huge puff of smoke at the woman, then belches. She scurries off to regain her sensibilities. Bragg laughs loudly. He laughs alone. An onlooker says, "Don, you're outrageous."
"No, I'm not."
"Oh, what would you consider outrageous?"
March 31, 1980
"I have a friend who throws ashtrays around in bars. Now that's outrageous. See what I mean?"
"But sticking that paper napkin in your mouth, chewing it up and spitting it out is not outrageous?"
"Or putting that wine cork in your nose at dinner last night?"
"Certainly not. I can see you don't understand. When I do something like that, some people will look at me in disgust, but others will laugh and things will get better. All I want is to try and make life a little less boring. See, most people superficially float through their calendar."
Don Bragg, who is 44, doesn't float through his calendar, he crashes. In fact, he hasn't floated over much of anything since that glorious September day two decades ago when he cleared 15'5" in Rome, an Olympic record. He also held the world indoor (15'9½") and outdoor (15'9¼") records. And while 18-foot vaults are fairly routine now that fiberglass poles are being used, nobody ever jumped higher than Bragg with the old stiff, aluminum pole (except for a disputed vault of 15'9¾" by Bob Gutowski in 1957). Indeed, Bragg and another gold-medal vaulter, the Rev. Bob Richards, have offered $10,000 to anyone who can jump 15'9" with the old-style pole.
Don's brother George says, "Winning that gold medal has done him damage. He just keeps going around saying, 'Hey, I'm a gold-medal winner.' There are more important things in life." Clearly, Bragg wants to be a celebrity, but he is widely ignored; he wants to be remembered as a star, but many have forgotten. He continually introduces himself as "Don Bragg Olympic Champion." There is no comma. Most people have two names; Bragg has four.
In 1960, Bragg was a household name, the incredible hulk from Villanova. Before that, he was somebody from the other side of the tracks in Penns Grove, N.J. The family lot was adjacent to the Cabbage Patch, an area of Penns Grove inhabited by transitory indigents. Don's father had ulcers and could drink no alcohol. Finally, the ulcers got so bad he had to have an operation. It was a success. He could drink. At which time the old man became an alcoholic.
Bragg's life is full of excesses, too, outrageous excesses. "We are taught that you need to be constant, not hypocritical," he muses. "Who says? And we are taught that there is one God. Who says? Maybe there's a Board of Trustees."
Two decades ago, Bragg—he of the phenomenal physique—was certain he was going to get to play Tarzan in the movies. So was everybody else. He and his wife, Terry, lived the legend, going to bed at night wearing leopard-skin nightshirts. But Tarzan he never was. Richards calls the slight "a crying shame. He could swing from trees and had such a great Tarzan yell." Muhammad Ali, another gold medalist in Rome, says, "Don had real talent. He was a little heavy but a good athlete. I thought he would have made such a good Tarzan." To this day Bragg persists in signing autographs "(Tarzan) Don Bragg."
"I hate to say it, but everything since 1960 has been downhill," Bragg declares. "That's a fact that exists. To be obsessed by a goal, then go get it, what can top that?" When he asked Terry to marry him after the Olympics, he said, "I've accomplished what I wanted to in life. We might as well get married."
Past accomplishments but brought the cheer
But suddenly present is this fear.
Yes, I feel I have exceeded
The excitement which I have needed.
—TIME OUT, by Bragg
Oddly, Bragg is now having the biggest success—since Rome, of course—as athletic director at tiny Stockton State College in Pomona, N.J., eight miles west of Atlantic City. What has happened is that because of Bragg the school has developed an enormously successful intramural sports program. Of the 3,800 students, more than 1,000 are engaged in intramurals. There are 26 flag-football teams in the fall, with 25 players each, and this spring more than 50 softball teams, with 12 players each. At many schools, intramurals mean throwing a ball out, blowing a whistle and hoping some students are around and interested enough to take it from there.
Not so at Stockton, which is situated in the scrub pine forests of South Jersey. It is the area treated by John McPhee in his book The Pine Barrens, in which he says that most other Jersey people think of the Pineys as people who live in caves and intermarry. McPhee writes of a Piney couple "who took a wheelbarrow with them when they went out drinking, so that one could wheel the other home." In other words, Bragg's kind of place.
A report written by Chuck Tantillo, a Stockton vice-president, confesses that there is "not much for students to do with their nonclassroom/leisure-time hours in Pomona. In reality, there is almost next to nothing available within 10 miles of the campus to occupy students' leisure-time energies."
Predictably, Bragg says the intramural program, which he started in 1972 when he became Stockton's athletic director, is "the best in the nation." However, a few minutes later, he allows that "if all the students lived on campus instead of us having so many commuters, we would have the best intramural program in the nation."
But, Don, you said earlier you did have the best program in the nation.
"Oh, well, pick one."
Larry James, a member of the U.S. gold-medal 4 x 400-meter relay team at the Mexico City Olympics and a silver medalist in the 400, is one of Bragg's assistants. Says James, "Don does nothing normal. Some people are outrageous in certain aspects of their lives. He's outrageous in all aspects."
In his office, when talk turns to the well-managed intramural program, Bragg inexplicably loses interest. He spits in his wastebasket. Well, toward his waste-basket. "Don't say much about Stockton," he finally blurts. "These bastards fight me every step of the way."
Getting intramurals going wasn't easy. Says Bragg, "I went over to the student union and pleaded with them. Nobody listened. Finally I said, 'Everybody who comes out in the parking lot for a game of softball will share a keg of beer.' That worked.
"The problem was that all we had was a bunch of long-haired white guys with bandannas and a bunch of arrogant, non-regimented black city kids. They wanted to debate everything. I'd say, 'Your game is on Field B.' They'd say, 'Why Field B?' "
These days, Bragg says he likes intramurals mostly because "we drink beer and throw each other in the lake. We're talking about belonging. I should be commended for our intramurals, but I'm not, because some of the people at Stockton think I'm crazy. But I don't care about them." He emphasizes his displeasure with a resounding belch.
And he's off on another tirade: "We got started here, finally, and had intramurals and everything was fine, especially flag football. Then, dammit, the girls wanted to play. What was I supposed to do? I mean guys are going to bust butts, right? So I say, 'O.K., girls, come on, but if you can't take it, I don't want to hear about it.' Then I get all this crap, and so I have to set up six powder-puff teams. It was awful. I mean if the weather got a little cold, they didn't show. Any excuse.
"So I decided we'd try volleyball. Twenty-four teams. I'd say about a quarter are all-girl teams, where they dress up in costumes and have fun, and another quarter are coed, and then the other half."
What do you mean, real teams?
All women I do despise!
—WOMEN, by Bragg
What is fascinating is how Bragg, described by one friend as the "unequivocal macho man," can survive his own candor. "Let me tell you about the time I was getting ready to hire a soccer coach," he says, pausing to spit on his office wall. "First thing I hear is the students want to hire the soccer coach. So I say, 'O.K., we'll have a meeting.' A bunch shows up and I say, 'I'll listen to what you have to say, but I can assure you that your input is minor.' It was a short meeting."
When he talks of Stockton's intercollegiate sports (eight, including basketball, soccer and track and field, but not football), he says, "Look, we're Division III. No scholarships, no nothing. All we can hope for is a 9.9 sprinter who might, with proper coaching, get to 9.7. Now that's still slow as hell, but the fact is, we're not dealing with thoroughbreds. Whenever one of these guys starts telling me about what he's going to do, I say, 'What have you done?' Then I say, 'If you're the best, like you say, what the hell are you doing at Stockton?' "
Bragg abruptly stands up and says, "Let's quit talking about this crap and go have a drink and talk about me."
The bartender approaches and says, "Don, the lady on down the way says your cigar smoke is bothering her, and she wants you to put it out."
"Tell her," says Bragg, "that this is a bar, not a damn church."
Bragg puffs harder, his cigar begins pumping out smoke like an out-of-tune diesel tractor.
Bragg's godfather, Chico Clemente, who lives in Philadelphia, says, "There are people who think he's a big, crude oaf. To that I say, well, he is a little crude at times." A longtime friend, Al Cantello, the cross-country coach at the Naval Academy, thinks part of Bragg's problem is that he returned home after the Olympics with the "personality of a maggot." Yet, Cantello says, "Don is simply a maverick with vision."
Through the ever testing life that scares,
Leading us repetitiously thru our nightmares.
What truly makes us stand erect;
Tis man's pursuit that gains him respect.
—HUNTER, by Bragg
There has always been evidence that Bragg is his own man. As a youngster he would take his own sawdust to meets to improve the pole-vault pits. At Villanova, while other students dived into the swimming pool from the diving board, Bragg headed in from the rafters. To prove something to himself, he once held a lighted cigar against his wrist; he wears the scar. These days, with minimum provocation, he'll plunge some 60 feet off the bridge over the Mullica River near his home. "I want to know if the fear will conquer me or I will conquer the fear," he says. "It's a challenge. Life is a challenge, so let's make it more exciting." Bragg's friend and business partner, Frank Ciko, says, "Don has excellent rapport—with himself. He just can't accept the fact he's 44."
"The toughest thing is competing in life when there's no clapping," Bragg says.
Bragg has written a book of poetry, Reflections of Gold. The author's name is given as (Tarzan) Don Bragg. Publishers were not impressed, so Bragg is having 5,000 copies published at his own expense. "Some of it is fair," says Bragg, "some is poor, and some is the work of a genius." If one were limited to a single descriptive adjective, "poor" would serve nicely.
When asked too soon to try once more
We pass out upon the floor.
—DISSIPATION, by Bragg
Even his friends find Bragg's literary work hard to defend. "Well, Don likes it," Cantello says. "At first I thought it was a put-on. Some of it is very badly constructed. But he's absolutely without guile."
For his part, Bragg snorts, "I don't know one damn thing about iambic pentameter. But poetry has been made so confusing. What I want to do is write popular poetry that communicates. It's not literary and it's not classic. Sometimes when the substance was good but the rhythm wasn't, I still kept it." He confesses, however, that if he were not an Olympic champion, absolutely no one would take his poetry seriously. "But that doesn't mean it's not good," he says. He also says, "I'm a multidimensional guy who thinks and feels with the best of them." Bragg swaggers when he sits.
He quotes Greeley, Kipling and Socrates and uses the word "cognizant" a lot. He says—dead seriously—that "what I'm trying to do is find the key to the universe. I'm close, real close." And then he reflects, "I'm one in a million." For once Bragg might be underestimating himself.
The scene switches from the Pine Barrens to Studio 54 in Manhattan. Bragg is out on the sidewalk hollering, "Hey, I'm Don Bragg Olympic Champion. Tarzan. Remember me?" He is ignored. Finally, Bragg can't take it anymore. "Let's bust in," he says. "No faggot s.o.b. in a cape is gonna stop me from going into a disco." He is persuaded to go elsewhere—not easily.
For everything that goes wrong, Bragg has a rationalization. Early on, he bought a record store, but grocery stores started selling records and ruined the business. He bought a tow truck, established an Olympic Credit Bureau and started repossessing cars, but he repossessed a car belonging to an organized-crime figure, and life became so dangerous—he was reportedly shot at—that he sold the business. He had a radio talk show, but it wasn't nasty enough. "Can you believe it?" says Bragg. "Me not nasty enough?"
And he built a camp—Kamp Olympik (Bragg's inspiration for the unique spelling came from the fact that he had been reading about the Celts—originally spelled Kelts) in New Gretna, N.J., close to where he now lives. He says he bought the property for $40,000, sold it nine years later for $250,000 and made some money from it in the intervening years. But a kid almost drowned, and Bragg decided it wasn't worth it. He was a great pole vaulter, nearly getting to the magic 16-foot mark with a metal pole, but then they made the fiber-glass pole, and now his old records seem pitiful by comparison.
He would have been Tarzan, but every time a casting call went out, fate would eliminate him. Once he cut his foot on a broken bottle when he alit from a tree; another time he suffered a ruptured disc; another time there were legal problems; another time he was shot at when he dropped off another man's girl friend at her home.
He would have been a color man for network television at the '68 Olympics, but he got to messing with the Tarzan thing too much and missed out. He was a fine arm wrestler, but they went and developed a new" style that involves the shoulder and the back, and Bragg could not adjust.
Not long ago, he and Ciko bought a bar in Margate, N.J., the Nickelodeon.
Terry says, "It's lovely."
Don: "Naw, it's a dive."
Terry: "It's a pleasant summertime hangout for kids."
Terry: "It's the nicest bar in the area."
Don: "It's a dive."
They are losing money on it, trying to sell it. Ciko says, "All we wanted was a short-term roll-over. My God, now we both wear earplugs and clean up after kids throw up. It's beyond crazy."
Another friend of Bragg's, Gene Kilroy, an executive in Las Vegas with the Dunes Hotel and a former member of Muhammad Ali's entourage, says, "Don's idea was to have a basketball court in back of the bar to attract the kids. But he was 10 years too late. Girls don't want to be around sweaty guys anymore. And besides, guys don't want to get sweaty." Times went and changed on Bragg. He would have played pro football but...and he would have killed them on The Superstars but...and on and on.
More than anything, Bragg is a pitchman for Bragg. He prides himself on talking his way into places where only ticket-holders are supposed to tread. "I know I'm arrogant, pompous and loquacious," he says. "I can't control it. But who would want to? It feels sooooo good. Besides, I think I'm a smart son of a bitch. So it's good to take a shot in the head every once in a while."
The thing that bothers me and makes me mad,
Is when I've been conned and I've been had.
—HUSTLED, by Bragg
Bragg owns 200 acres of property around his appropriately spectacular home. He wants to subdivide a good part of it for residential development, but he is being blocked by environmentalists. "If they don't let me develop my land," he says, "I'll get a bulldozer and a shotgun, and I'll plow over all these trees and all these creepy environmentalists. I'm not paying all this money so they can look at birds. They are my damn trees, and if they want my trees, they can pay for them. A man's home is his castle, and my land is my Ponderosa. I am not giving in."
Says Terry, "Whatever happens, Don won't die. Only the good die young."
But for the current crop of young, the athletes who may find themselves with no Olympics to attend in 1980, Bragg may be an inspiration. He recalls that he was supposed to win a gold medal in 1956, but he failed to make the team because of an injury and a disputed miss in the Olympic Trials. Bragg hung on, kept training, kept slamming that unyielding metal pole into the box, absorbing the shock with his massive arms and shoulders, and levering himself up into the air. Four years later he had his gold.
Jim Tuppeny, Penn's track coach, who was Bragg's pole-vaulting mentor at Villanova in those days, says, "If these kids today are willing to work four more years, it can be done. The proof is Don."
Late one recent evening, Bragg is sitting in the sunken living room of his home ("I built it for $120,000, and I'll bet it's worth $350,000 now"). A gentle wind is blowing, and beyond a glass wall the waves on "Bragg's Lake" can be heard slapping the shore. "I'm like a flighty thoroughbred," he says. "I don't make a good pet. I know I'm an argumentative sort of person. But a man should have one foot on the ground and one foot off—one as an anchor, one for the need to be free. I want to live like I want to live, not how other people want me to live.
"Funny thing, though, I still don't know what I want to be."